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Union ties help provide legal aid

Two candidates for sheriff raise questions about how another, PBA chief Jack Soule, handled his son's legal problems.

By LEANORA MINAI

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 19, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- It was January 1992 and the son of Jack Soule, a St. Petersburg police officer and union vice president, was in a lot of trouble.

Chris Soule, 14, was charged with a series of horrible crimes. He broke into the homes of four elderly St. Petersburg residents. He assaulted and robbed them at gunpoint.

His father, Jack, turned to connections made through the union he helped run.

Joe Ciarciaglino, who represents Pinellas County Police Benevolent Association members in trouble with the law, agreed to take on Chris Soule's case for free.

"I reached out to him because he's a friend. He's a confidant," Soule said of Ciarciaglino. "I did not ask him to take up the case pro bono. He did it on his own."

Five years later, when Chris Soule was charged with killing his cellmate in prison, his father turned to his union connections again. This time, a former Ciarciaglino law associate represented Chris Soule, who was convicted in 1997 of second-degree murder and is now serving life in prison.

Jack Soule, now the president of the local PBA and a candidate for Pinellas County sheriff, was a union vice president in 1992 when Ciarciaglino agreed to represent Chris Soule on 15 criminal charges stemming from a Jan. 27, 1992, crime rampage in St. Petersburg. Ciarciaglino helped the younger Soule get assigned to a taxpayer-financed youth offender program, even though Chris Soule was prosecuted as an adult in Pinellas County.

Ciarciaglino, the PBA's general counsel for 23 years, said Friday that he often accepts pro bono cases on behalf of police officers. Soule said he paid for some of Ciarciaglino's costs, like transcripts of testimony.

Ciarciaglino denied that Soule's position with the union led to any special treatment for Chris Soule.

"I've never been averse to giving help to working folks," Ciarciaglino said.

In his candidacy, Soule has again reached out to the Pinellas County PBA, a private organization, for help.

In his current candidacy, Soule got the endorsement and financial backing of PBA offices throughout Florida. He rents an office for his campaign in the PBA's headquarters in Clearwater. Police officers, as well as sheriff's employees, have donated money and time to his election bid.

All three Republican candidates for sheriff said Friday that the criminal troubles of Soule's son should not, on their own, be a campaign issue. Yet candidate Tom McKeon said Soule's reaching out to Ciarciaglino for free legal work is a conflict.

"I think integrity, or the lack of it, is showing in this campaign," said McKeon, a former Philadelphia police officer.

Rice's own son, Everett Rice Jr., was arrested and charged in 1996 with passing counterfeit $10 bills in exchange for crack cocaine. He eventually pleaded no contest and was sentenced to probation.

On Friday, Rice took a jab at Jack Soule, saying his opponent in the sheriff's race came to him for help with his son after the burglary case was filed.

"He whined and moaned about his son being in jail and said he shouldn't," said Rice, serving his 12th year in office. "He asked me for help on it. He wasn't happy about the fact that his son couldn't get an early release. I told him I would look into it."

Soule denies that he went to Rice for help. He said Rice actually came to him after hearing about Chris Soule's burglary charges.

"He approached me and said, "You know, I am concerned about your son,' " Soule said. "I just said, "Do what you have to do.' I never asked Rice for anything. What could he do for me?"

Regardless of whether a request was made, Rice, it appears, did not do anything to help Soule's son.

Chris Soule's adult criminal history began Jan. 27, 1992, when, armed with a gun, he broke into four homes and robbed and assaulted four people, ages 65 to 86. Court records reflect that he had a juvenile record prior to that.

At Ciarciaglino's urging, Circuit Judge Helen S. Hansel gave Chris Soule a suspended prison sentence, placed him on probation after his guilty plea and assigned him to the Florida Environmental Institute, a program for high-risk juvenile offenders. The place is known as "Last Chance Ranch" and costs $45,000 a year.

The sentence was unusual in that Chris Soule had been prosecuted as an adult, and faced adult prison, but Hansel agreed to a sentence that would normally be imposed on a juvenile.

Chris Soule was placed in the custody of the former state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, so the cost of the FEI program would not be paid by the Soule family.

"This is the way I want it done for this young man," Hansel told the court in July 1992. "I think we need to tailor our orders to meet the needs of the community and of the individual. And in this case, it's an unusual circumstance, it's not something I would do every other day; probably once in 10 years or something."

But two months later, Chris Soule escaped at knifepoint. His probation was revoked, and he started serving the suspended 10-year sentence at Martin Correctional Institute.

In June 1997, he strangled his cellmate there. He called it self-defense. But he was charged with first-degree murder, and prosecutors sought the death penalty.

His father turned to lawyer Mark Gruwell, a former Ciarciaglino associate in St. Petersburg who had branched out on his own in Sarasota in 1994.

Soule said he paid Gruwell $25,000 for his services, though Gruwell declined Friday to comment on fees. Gruwell, however, said that Soule did not ask for favors.

"Jack would not do anything like that," said Gruwell, 34. "I've known him since 1992, and he strikes me as an honest person who cares about police work."

Though Soule said he has not seen his son in years, he loves him unconditionally and has a greater understanding for issues facing juveniles, especially since his own son got involved with the wrong crowd.

"I would have liked for him to be successful," Soule said. "But there are certain things we don't have control over." Sighing, he said. "Welcome to politics, huh?"

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